College Bound AZ, a Mesa nonprofit that guides low-income students toward higher education through mentorship, helped 24 students get into college this year free of tuition.
The graduates are part of the organization’s RISE Scholars — a new pilot program in partnership with the East Valley Institute of Technology that seeks to connect financially disadvantaged students to Arizona State University.
Although the nonprofit aids with college preparation, the application process and determining class schedules, one of its top priorities is to ensure students secure one of ASU’s college attainment grants or the President Barack Obama Scholars award.
“College Bound serves as the bridge to ensure the transition to college is successful and that the students receive scholarships to finance their education,” said College Bound AZ co-founder and Executive Director Elizabeth Paulus.
“If you’re in RISE scholars, it means you’ve got a support system for as long as you need it,” she said.
The ASU College Attainment Grant Program provides tuition and fees to students eligible for the federal Pell Grant, while the Obama scholarship program covers direct costs of attending the university.
This year the total amount of scholarships awarded to the RISE scholars equaled $1.5 million.
Paulus said she chose EVIT as the focus for her pilot program because she noticed the vocational school didn’t have very many higher-education resources.
“I came to find out that EVIT didn’t have a college counseling component, so I made a presentation about how we [College Bound] could leverage what ASU offers for their particular students,” she said. “Some of those students want to be doctors, nurses and engineers and they just happen to attend EVIT.”
The requirements to be a RISE scholar include a 3.0 grade point average, Pell Grant eligibility and interest in pursuing a degree in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.
Paulus then helps the students with resume building, essay organization and the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), among other things.
“The students come in very skeptical at first, they don’t know about the college application process,” said Paulus. “We use workshops to help them problem solve and submit a waiver so they don’t have to pay admissions fees.”
“We also take a tour to ASU to meet the other ASU students, see the dorms and experience the classroom so they can visualize themselves on campus,” Paulus continued. “Now they know they’ve made a commitment to ASU.”
Paulus and her coworkers continue to mentor the students even well after they’ve been accepted into ASU.
The RISE scholars participate in monthly check-ins and annual professional development workshops to prepare for employment after college, Paulus explained.
“My commitment to them is that our organization will stay connected with the students over the first year to make sure they make that connection to the other students and campus,” she said. “Once you make that connection, you’re home and you’re good.”
Paulus said she was inspired to start College Bound AZ after a family friend who was struggling financially asked for help applying to FAFSA.
She said she agreed to help, but quickly realized how “confusing” and intimidating the college application process could be — especially for economically disadvantaged students.
“I thought, ‘this is just not right,’” she commented. “I said, ‘well, you can either complain about it or you can do something about it. Being a faith-based person, I think I knew I found a calling and started putting the program together.”
The organization is now in its 10th year, and has support from area businesses and civic leaders, including Mesa United Way, National Bank of Arizona and Cox Charities.
College Bound’s end goal is to support the state’s goal of ensuring that 60 percent of Arizonans have a certificate or college degree to “secure prosperity for its citizens and its future workforce.”
“They [the students] can’t do it without help, they have tremendous gifts that they are waiting to develop — they’ve got dreams,” Paulus said. “Their good grades have earned them the assistance. We just need to rally around these kids and provide them the opportunity. That’s what it’s about.”
Although there is no cap on the amount of students that can participate in RISE, Paulus said she hopes to accommodate around 200 students in the upcoming school year.